Note: Gambia RPCV Mike Shepard embarked on a backpacking trip across West Africa following the end of his service. Below is an account of his trip to Guinea. The original can be found in his blog along with stories from other parts of his trip. This account is reposted with Mike's permission. Because of length, this will be posted in three parts. Part one can be found here and part two is here.
A Trip to Guinea (part 3)
By Mike Shepard, RPCV Gambia 2003-05
By three o’clock in the afternoon they came back from their hikes with Hassan apologizing that he forgot I was sick and would have prepared for lunch to be delivered to me earlier. I was feeling a lot better and could now join them relaxing in the hammock without the overwhelming feeling to fall asleep. A late lunch was served and we sat in our respective hammocks lounging around.
In the evening I was well enough to go on one of the small hikes. Sarah was up for it also, but Lisa wanted to continue reading her book. Out of the list of small hikes to do we chose the Hyena’s Rock. Now, keep in mind that I hadn’t read the description of the hikes yet, and so as we’re walking along with Hassan pointing in some direction naming an animal or boat that the rocks resemble I didn’t think they were talking about the rocks, I though they were talking about the clouds! I was getting so frustrated because I couldn’t see any of these images in the clouds that they so obviously could see.
Hassan: “See it? A duck. A duck taking a drink with his neck down.”
Sarah: “Oh yeah! I see it!” as she’s looking at the proper rock
Me: “I don’t see it!” as I’m looking at a patch of clouds that reminds me of nothing but a cotton ball. I’m straining my imagination trying to make that cotton ball look not only like a duck, but a duck with his head down taking drink. It still looked like a cotton ball to me.
This lasted the entire hour-long hike! It wasn’t until we were heading back when Hassan pointed obviously to a rock, with no clouds in the sky in that direction, and said what it looked like.
“Oh! You’ve been looking at the ROCKS!”
Sarah gave me a look as if I just said the stupidest thing in the world: “What did you THINK we were looking at?”
“The clouds! I couldn’t see any of these things you guys were talking about! All I saw throughout the whole trip was cotton ball after cotton ball” By now I wanted to do the hike over again to see the duck taking a drink of water, an boat sailing along, a tiger sleeping and all the other crazy rock formations that I never saw. But we were heading back to camp. It wasn’t until I got back did I read all the descriptions of the hikes and realized where the look came from when I said they’ve been looking at the rocks the whole time.
After dinner, when the sun was setting, Hassan brought out the radio and announced
“I carry what?”
“No, your carry”
“Your Kerry is on the radio.”
“Oh! Kerry! I thought you said carry”
“No, ah… never mind”
“Kerry, your Presidential candidate. He will be on the radio tonight. The democrats have their convention tonight and are going to nominate him. He will give a speech.”
He laid down the radio on the table while we just relaxed in the hammocks. It was the BBC World News along with other BBC radio broadcasts. One of them was an 83-year old who wanted some machine of his fixed. The customer service representative said something to the affect of it was ten years old and should be malfunctioning by now. His retort? “I’m 83 and haven’t malfunction yet!”
Being four or five hours ahead of Eastern Time we had some time to wait until the broadcast. By the two hour mark I called it a night. Sarah and Lisa followed ten minutes later. Hassan continued listening throughout the night and heard Kerry’s broadcast, along with other world news the BBC is so good as giving out.
Day two of hiking began at nine in the morning. The caves were today. Hassan came over to announce “B.B.O.W.” and left. I looked at Sarah, Sarah looked at Lisa, Lisa looked back at me. Before we could exchange a word of confusion Hassan came back again with a smile on his face “Bring Bottle of Water”
Although feeling a lot better than the day before I still kept my own water bottle. Sarah and Lisa were sharing one. We put both bottles in Lisa’s backpack and Sarah started carrying it. Each person would take an hour’s turn with the backpack.
Within fifteen minutes we’re walking down into the valley. Time and time again we had to walk sideways or else we would slip. Green trees, shrubs, and boulders stretched for miles in every direction. Not a single village could be seen among the rolling hills.
We began talking to Hassan on the way down. I do not know how the conversation progressed to this point, but somehow religion came up. His belief about religion, expressed in one sentence, made everyone laugh. The context of the sentence was not that he didn’t want to talk about, but he was expressing his viewpoint of why many people have different religions. He said: “To me, religion is like going to the bathroom. It’s personal.”
For an hour we explored the landscape; hiking up and down trails; leaning over cliffs to get a better picture; trying to climb small boulders. The caves we explored didn’t go in very deep, maybe about 50 feet or so with no maze-like paths. Just an opening for the one room filled with cool air, huge spider webs the size of hammocks, and the mist of the nearby waterfall coming in. After a few hours we’re getting closer and closer to the edge of a cliff. Finally we’re at the edge, still walking along it, until we reached a wall. Hassan grabbed the wall and slowly edged his way around it and then started climbing up it. We all stood there with Sarah being the first to speak
“Hassan, where are you going?”
“I’m going home!” was his reply as he climbed more of the rock waving us to follow.
By this time we’re all quite a bit nervous. To our left is a 2000 foot drop and to our right is the wall we have to climb. Hassan went as slow as he could, helping each one of us in turn. He made sure he was positioned in a stable place where he could lend a hand and help pull us up if need be. For the first climb Sarah was the first to go, then Lisa, then finally me. The second climb Sarah went first, with Lisa second, and again me last. The problem I had was I was wearing jeans. I didn’t know we would have to do any rock-climbing and thought it would be maybe a few roughs trails here and there but no 2000 foot drops planned. The jeans kept me from extending my legs as far as I wanted to find a good footing. Hassan held on to my right hand as my left hand was on a rock, one foot positioned on another rock and my right foot trying to find a place. After I thought I found a stable place the rock I was holding on came loose, my feet slipped and Hassan quickly pulled me up while I’m kicking the sides of the rocks trying to get some friction to help him pull me up. After that, in order to reach the top we had to contort ourselves through openings of the rocks, it some cases shifting 180 or bending close to 90 backwards in order to complete them.
As we sat down to relax we all agreed not to do this hike again. The beginning was fun, but the end to get home was a killer. Hassan explained that this wasn’t the original way home for the trail. He changed it a month or so back to make it more challenging. Basically it was sort of a test. The most popular trail is “Shoots n’ Ladders” but he has to decided whether the people can handle climbing down wet rocks next to a waterfall down a cliff. And so, if you could handle this small climb (which in all honesty only took about half-an-hour) you could do Shoots n’ Ladders.
I may be sounding like we were on the verge of death, which wasn’t the case. The cliffs were right next to us, yes; but we went extremely slow one foot at a time always with Hassan keeping a hold of us at the most difficult parts. When a part became too difficult for someone he would find another way up for them, which might mean backtracking for five minutes or so and then catching up to group while he found an easier path going up.
When we made it back to site we all collapsed in our respective hammocks not wanting to move. The hike itself didn’t exhaust us, just the half-hour of climbing at the end scared us all half-to-death. Hassan’s wife came by with our late lunch. We were all eager to eat and lifted up the lid to see eight globulars of something. We’re having fufu for lunch. After eating and relaxing Lisa made the comment she only had one globular fufu, with Sarah commenting she only had two. I realized we started with eight.
“There is no way I had five globulars!”
Half teasing they repeated again again “Glob hogger! Glob hogger! ” with me jokingly responding “I’m not a glob hogger!”
Lisa went back to reading her book, while Sarah and I prepared for the afternoon hike. We chose “Indiana Jones.” Hassan took us down a different set of trails. We were now on the other side of the mountain then we were for the caves. This trail was the funniest so far. Vines you could climb, others you could swing on, rocks you had to jump over to cross a river, small crevasses you had to climb through, and even a natural swimming pool at the end which Hassan called the Jacuzzi. Both Sarah and I jumped in and enjoyed the cold water much more so then the hot sun.
On the way back we stopped to have our picture taken overlooking the hills and mountains. We each sat back-to-back arms folded in a triumphant pose. What was a spur-of-the-moment picture ended up being one of the best pictures of the entire trip.
We each called it a day relatively early and went to bed eager to do the hardest trail, “Shoots ‘n Ladders” the next morning. The day after we would head home. While relaxing the night before we made a comment that we forgot to bring any games, except for a deck of cards. Hassan went to his house and brought out a chess / backgammon board he had. Although we appreciated the gesture we were all too tired to play and went to bed. At nine in the morning as we were eating breakfast getting ready to go two vans pulled up. We heard English and saw, through the low overhang of the hut, people in shorts. Put those two together and it spells tourists. Hassan went to meet up with them and then came back to tell us he couldn’t take us on our hike today as the tourists wrote him a month ago saying they were coming on this day but he forgot about it.
The tourists came to the hut to relax a bit. The first one came in with a big warm “Good-morning!” which Sarah replied “Ah! An American!” as he turned around showing his t-shirt with a maple leaf and in big letter “CANADA” written across it. He smiled at the obvious missed hint, “Close, Canadian.”
It turned out they weren’t tourists at all. They were a group of missionaries that travel country to country every few years, in the meantime rotating people in their group who come and go. They live in a country long enough to learn the local language and then translate the bible into that language. They were currently working on a Fula edition of the New Testament and were surprised that Lisa could speak Fula. Within a few minutes they realized both people had different dialects and were discussing the differences among the two Fula dialects from Gambia to Guinea.
The twelve of them went with Hassan for their all-day hike while we sat in the hammocks wondering what to do for the rest of the day. Not too long after they left it started to rain and only then were we glad they showed up and took our day of hiking away. The downpour continued for an hour before it let up. Sarah was getting annoyed that a whole day was being wasted and verbally telling us so. I was laying their playing Boggle, Lisa was smoking away reading her book, while Sarah ranted on.
Sarah: “I’m sorry I’m being such a bitch about this.”
Lisa: “No problem. We’re each doing something. I’m puffing along, Mike’s playing Boggle, and your bitching.”
There was a pause before she continued,
“It sort of reminds me of that one song in ‘Chicago’. Pop, Six, Squish, Uh uh, Cicero, Lipschitz! Except now it’s Puff Puff, Boggle Boggle, Bitch Bitch.”
We all laughed as it went further
Lisa: “Puff Puff”
I’m still concentrating on the Boggle game but heard the whole conversation and knew what she was trying to do: “Boggle Boggle”
Sarah joined in “Bitch Bitch!”
Lisa then took the lead, changing the lyrics to fit the hike the previous day
“We had to climb it /
We had to climb it /
We to climb the hill /
If you would have seen it /
You would have known that /
You would have done the same”
The rest of the afternoon was smooth sailing after that. It broke the ice, we were no longer upset we missed the day of hiking and we laughed for most of the afternoon telling jokes or hearing crazy stories from Lisa growing up and getting in trouble; or what was more like the case of trying not to get caught. The rain started up again, died again, and continued for a third time. By mid-afternoon we were quite glad we didn’t go hiking that day. Not so much because of the rain, although that was a good deterrent, but because the hike is considered challenging when there’s no rain; and impassable if it is raining.
Around noon Sarah and I got out the chess set and played a few games. The last time we played, when I got invited to go on the trip with them I had won three games in a row. Today wasn’t my day I lost three games in a row. We were now even.
By three in the afternoon the Canadians came back, soaking wet, but they enjoyed their hike. They thanked Hassan and paid him his fee, said goobye to us and got back in their vans to head home. We called Hassan over and explained that since today we couldn’t go on the hikes, we would extend our stay for one more day if we got that day for free. He agreed to it and we planned on the Shoots ‘n Ladders hike the next morning bright and early.
With the tourists gone and no one else showing up the trip seemed a green-light the next morning. Hassan announced we were going and we followed behind him. Each of the previous trails began with going around the compound to the backside and basically hiking through his “backyard”. This hike required us to go through his wife’s compound and to head in the opposite direction of all the other hikes.
As we were passing a small group of compounds an elderly woman came to greet us as we passed. She smiled showing what was left of her teeth and spoke proverbs in Fula as Hassan translated. She thanked us for visiting Doucki and hoped we received what we were looking for. She then started telling us a story of the power of Allah. Being very old and little she couldn’t reach the avocados that were growing next to her hut. She prayed to Allah one night for him to help. Later that night a huge storm came through and knocked down the avocado tree. All the roots were exposed except for one main one that stayed in the ground. The tree lays on its side and still grows to this day, with the avocados growing each year in arms reach for her to enjoy. Her prayers were answered, she said.
We continued along the path, picking up a second guide as we went along. He never gave his name out and Hassan never introduced him, but he walked behind all of us. For the first few hours the trail was easy and I was wondering when it was going to become difficult. The only difficult part so far was crossing a creek that twenty feet downstream became a small waterfall. The flow was so great that you had to use your arms to help pull you along a rope they stretched across. You could feel the force on your feet and each step was as difficult as the last.
About a half-hour after the creek we came across a small waterfall and started to climb down next to it. At some points along the waterfall wooden structures, made of branches of twigs, laid across two boulders and we had crawl on top of them to get to the next landing. After we finished climbing down that waterfall another, yet bigger one, came along. Little did I realize this was the beginning of the difficult part. The rocks were full of moss, were wet because of the waterfall, and we’re climbing downhill. I’m a bit nervous when it comes to a loss of friction (when friction is needed) and so each step for me was a balancing act of trying to stay on there short enough not to slip but long enough to get the other foot someplace else. At some points we had to hug the wall and climb down penguin-style as no other space allowed otherwise.
Ten minutes later we’re at our first wooden ladder; the first of nine. It’s not so much as a ladder, but a bunch of sticks, twigs, and branches all tied together going from one rock to another that otherwise would be impassable. Later that day I asked Hassan if he put those together for the tourists. They were made years ago by the villagers who travel up and down those paths everyday. About every three months or so a twig or branch is replaced as it rots away, but other then that those branches are the only way those people can get from the top of hill to the valley, and vice versa, without going 10 miles out of their way.
As we were going down I’m beginning to not like this part of the trail and would, if I could, to chose another way to go back. I told Hassan my concern, with his reply being: “That’s impossible. We’re only going half-way down. There’s only one way back up, the same way we came.” With that he pointed up at the twig ladders we just climbed down, still being soaked by the waterfall.
After more than an hour climbing down the rocks, twigs ladders, loosing your footing a few times, grabbing onto branches, and other crazy stuff we reached the half-way point. The path curved around the hill, away from the waterfall, to overlook more of the valley and even see the rest of the hills stretching across the distance. We stayed there for only ten minutes, taking a few pictures and drinking some water before turning around to start the climb up. Going uphill, I found, was a lot easier than downhill. I was still the last one in line, in some cases knees shaking like a polariod. This time around the ladders were no problem, as I could see my footing each time and knew where they were. The casual slipping and occasional lost footing still kept me wearisome throughout the trip up.
The guide who came along and stayed behind us helped me along while the rest of the group went up ahead. We caught up to them about ten minutes after climbing back up, when we reached the creek we had to pass. They were on the other side putting back on their shoes. I had my Chaco’s on and just started crossing. This being our last hike I realized that not once did I wear the shoes I brought along and they were, in fact, dead weight on the bag.
On the way home Hassan just went crazy. He started shaking his arms every which directions and taking off his rain jacket and shirts. His repeated words explained everything: “The ants! The ants!” Throughout each hike we had to be mindful of the ants and quickly stepped away from them; or if we accidentally stepped on them to quickly brush them off or jump in a creek. Hassan, now with no shirt on, had ants over his back with bite marks throughout. Lisa had to help him pluck the ants off his back.
While resting on the hammocks back at camp a few hours later Hassan told us we should come over to his balcony to watch the sunset. Lisa was the first to get up, then Sarah and I joined. We sat on the balcony, looking outward into the valley as the sun set perfectly between two hills. A few trees were in the way, but the colors the sky became made up for it. While we sat, watching the sun and listening to the BBC, a group of voices were heard in the distance. Hassan had visitors. More tourists. This time a group of about a dozen French hikers, around our age. Not wanting to lose our hammocks we ran back to lay down while Hassan showed them around the camp. Being twelve of them there was not enough room until after we left. As such, some took up the other hut he had while the rest stayed in an empty room in his house. None of them came over and we all had our dinner separately.
Seeing the French hikers I was reminded of growing up seeing pictures of twenty-year-olds exploring the world, going on hiking trips for months or years, and thinking to myself “How can they afford, time wise, to do that?” But yet, here I was, half-way through my service doing the exact same thing I only saw pictures of. I am now one of those guys, and I now see how people can afford it; both time wise and monetary wise. This entire trip costing no more than $200, since we did nothing very touristy.
The next morning while we were getting ready to leave, the French tourists were enjoying their breakfast getting ready for their day of hiking. We paid Hassan our fees, 20,000GF/person/night. This amounted to $40 a person, by far our biggest expense. For Hassan, just receiving $120 implies his tourism business is quite a good one! (Not to mention he had 12 French tourists waiting for hikes, and took a dozen American/Canadian hiking the day before). The GDP/per capita of Guinea is $2,100 compared to $37,800 for the U.S. This is interesting since according the CIA Worldfactbook, the Gini Index of Guinea is very nearly equal to that of the U.S [40.3 vs 40.8], so both countries have roughly the same degree of inequality in the distribution of family income, just the range is different.
At the entrance to his compound a car backed up and we were told we could get in. Even though this was a public transportation car, we didn’t have to flag down a car; or better yet wait hours on end for one. This car would take us to Pita for the same price. At Pita a driver asked where we were going and we answered “Labe” where he quickly said to follow him. We were approaching his car when other drivers asked where we were going as well. The first driver brushed them off saying he got us first and therefore would take us. We looked over at the other cars, realized they were going to Labe as well, and better yet, they were half-full. Less waiting! We left the first driver to join the others, to the amusement of our new driver who was now laughing at our old one.
A few hours later we arrived in Labe on the same street we were at days earlier. Lisa walked over to the leather store across the street to pick up her shoes she asked them to make the last time we were there. With no surprise, they hadn’t even started on them. Why make a new pair of shoes, when there is a hundred here the customer could choose from? Because we’d pay extra for custom-made! The idea of customer service, both in restaurants and other areas of industry aren’t up to par with the U.S., except maybe the tourist regions Not expecting them to be completed anyway Lisa just shrugged it off with indifference.
We turned the corner to head back to the store with the Mars bars. We made our mistake earlier and we weren’t going to repeat it. As we’re purchasing our Mars bars, the same three men were sitting watching the TV. This time it was top twenty pop songs in the U.K. We stood there watching the videos and enjoying a real candy bar, as opposed to the fake one earlier. After watching about five videos we left to get some breakfast and find the car park going to back to
The place we had breakfast was an open-air rest area where a half-dozen women where serving everything from coos, rice, soup, bread, and other local items. We put our bags down and enjoyed our morning bowl of rice while a military solider, weapons and all, sat next to us also enjoying his breakfast. A passing taxi agreed to take us to the proper car park for 1000 GF each. Ten minutes after getting into the cab we’re at the other side of Labe at the proper car park.
A man approached us and asked where we were going. We replied “Basse, The Gambia” in which he replied “This car here, will take you to; only 40,000 GF”. Sarah argued the price was a way too much, until they pulled out receipts with the 40,000 already printed on them. The price was non-negotiable. We each paid the dues, collected a receipt, and gave them our bags. We knew we wouldn’t be leaving for a few hours. At eleven o’clock in the morning Sarah asked the guy “Where’s a bar? Drinks?”
He took us two blocks away to what was most likely the only bar in that side of town. No tourist would ever realize this was a bar. No signs hung outside, and no details outside illustrated this was where the drinks where. There was, in fact, no door; only strings of fabric hanging down separated the inside from the outside. Our guide excused himself saying he would get us when the car was about to leave. Through the ‘door’ was a room, about 15 feet long and six feet wide. Benches went along three sides of them while a TV/DVD player was on the fourth, next to the door. A table sat in front of each bench leaving only enough room for one person to go between the two tables separating the two sides. The twelve-year old bartender was busy serving drinks.
Across the ceiling hung those triangle frabic things that string across the room that you usually see at car dealerships. They were advertising “Skol” beer. We all thought it was Guinean so Sarah and Lisa ordered one. The twelve-year walked over to the refrigerator and got two bottles and opened them for them. While we read the label the kid walked back to the refrigerator to get bottles of liquor for the Guineans sitting across the room. Skol beer is not from Guinea, but Brazil!
I’m sitting right next to the opening to the outside world (I can’t really count it as a door, could I?) while Sarah sat to my left and Lisa to hers. Two feet away was the TV playing an old movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, later found out to be “Cyborg”. Everyone was mesmerized by the movie, which was dubbed in French. Without knowing any French I was able to grasp the story line by just the bad acting alone. When the main bad-guy came running after Van Damme screaming, in what seemed like every scene, the bar would be full of laughter.
Sarah and Lisa ordered another beer. The bartender was not only kept busy by getting everyone their drinks but also kicking the kids out of the doorway who were trying to watch the movie from the outside. When “Cyborg” was done, they took out the DVD and put another one in. This time it was “Firestorm” starring Howie Long. I never knew Howie Long was in movies, I imagined him in those TV commercials with Teri Hatcher for Radio Shack. This one was also dubbed in French but had English subtitles. We watched the entire 89 minute movie, because we nothing else to do. The girls ordered another beer as I went to check on the car. “Three more people” they told me. Back to the bar.
A new movie! It’s now “Executive Target” with Roy Scheider. No English subtitles and so I’m lost to the subtleties of the plot, but the basic scheme I’m getting. Halfway through this third and final movie our guide showed up saying we’re ready to go. But what does he do? He sat down and started watching the movie! After a few minutes he got up and walked us back to the car park.
The car we put our bags on top of was not there, but a new car was, with the top all covered up. Concerning we’d be leaving without our bags we asked to see them. This required two men climbing on top of the car, untying the secure rope, undraping the sheets and searching through the luggage to find out bags. All three bags were there and we got in the vehicle. I was told to sit up-front, with two other people besides the driver. A bit crowded. There was one small advantage to this location: whenever we stopped I was always the first passenger out of the car, and because of my location I had to be the last one back in. I got the longest break each time! Lisa and Sarah sat behind me, with two other people; four people sat behind them; and two more sat in the trunk. Fourteen people for a car that’s suppose to take only eight. As I said before, a bit crowded. By the way, this doesn’t include two or three kids sitting on their parent’s laps.
We left the car park and Labe at four in the afternoon. Around seven or eight we stopped along the road with other cars. We had just crossed a small bridge and all the men got out, bringing their prayer rugs with them. It was prayer time and we had to wait. As the Muslim men prayed we sat on the bumper of the car talking to the Christian men and women. With 85% of the country being Muslim the other 15% basically just has to go with the flow.
With everyone back in the car we headed out again. The driver was quite in a rush and was going over the potholes, which were filled with mud, with relative ease. Up ahead a line of lights showed across a bend in the road. I sat in the front seat trying to figure out what it could be. They were all red lights, so at first thought maybe the back end of a long string of cars. Similar to the end of “Field of Dreams” or “Pay it Forward” which end with cars converging to a central location. While we sped forward it became clear the lights did not belong to a bunch of cars, but three trucks slowly going over pothole over pothole. Our driver tried to pass the first, but the driver of the truck refused to let him pass. We’re now half-on the road, half off trying to pass this truck. Traffic is coming the other way and our driver had to give up and retreat again. Eventually he was able to pass the first of the three trucks. The same routine happened for the other two, with the drivers exchanging yellings in their respective local languages with me in the middle of the yelling.
About a mile down the road we passed a sign that had no words just an illustration of a car falling into a river. Before I could quite understood what that meant we had to stop. Not so much because we’d fall into a river, but because of the twenty cars before us waiting to cross that river. There was only one ferry and it could only take two cars at a time. In other words, we’re going to be here for a while! The time now is 9:30pm. Sarah, Lisa, and I made a bet when we’d finally cross the river. I was the most optimistic of the three of us, with only a two hour wait. Sarah had us going at 12:30 in the morning, while Lisa said 1:30.
We walked the twenty car lengths to check out the ferry. It was only then I knew I would lose the bet. The ferry was hand-pulled. We walked back halfway to the car and stopped at the run-down coffee shop. The bench sank in the mud as the fire to heat the water grew in the background. The owner had bread and individual Nescafe packets to sell; which with sweetened condensed milk makes a pretty good coffee. As we sat it began to ran so we drank more.
After about an hour and a half everyone was getting tired. It had stopped raining so Sarah took up the hood of the car, while I sat in the front seat with Lisa in the back. After a short nap we all got awoken to commotion, the cars were moving forward a distance. Sarah jumped off the hood and got in the car. We moved twenty feet before we stopped. It was only then that Sarah realized she left her glasses on the hood of the car. She got out and tried finding them nearby, borrowing a flashlight from a random Guinean man. They were no-where to be found. Understandably she got upset while going back and forth that twenty feet. The Guineans were trying to figure out why she was so upset and searching under their cars with a flashlight. It took Lisa to explain it to them
“She lost her glasses.”
“Where are you going?”
“You can get glasses there.”
“These are specially made ones. Very expensive”
They still didn’t quite understand why that should matter so much, but the next sentence Lisa said had them searching with us: “They were American doctor prescription.”
After that we had three Guineans helping us, I had a flashlight, Lisa had one, Sarah was no where to be found. We never did find her glasses. If you are a volunteer and you misplace your glasses Peace Corps will replace one pair for free during your two year service. Sarah had just finished her service two days before our trip and so a replacement pair now had to come out of her pocket.
We crossed the ferry at 12:30 in the morning with all three of us pulling on the rope to bring it across. Half of the people in the car are now dozing off to sleep, with me on the way there. Only a half-hour after crossing a loud noise was heard underneath the car, the muffler had broken loose. The driver got out, so did the entire front row (including myself) to assess the situation. The driver took out a knife and cut some rope off that was used to keep the luggage on top. He tried to tie the muffler back on, but the rope wasn’t long enough and he couldn’t cut anymore off without jeopardizing luggage falling off. Out he came under the car, holding the muffler, telling me to open the trunk where he was going to throw it down for later. When I went to open the trunk I forgot about the two people sitting back there, now sleeping, and for a brief second the shock of two dead bodies came in my head as if I was Don Corleone or Tony Soprano. Late at night, in the middle of nowhere, raining, with two bodies in the trunk. The driver threw the muffler on them and before they woke up and replied the door was shut. (The trunk wasn’t an enclosed compartment, but more like a luggage area in the back)
If you weren’t awake already, you were by the time the car started. Not a single person in the car, and probably anywhere in the world, could sleep through that noise. I’m nodding in and out of sleep only seconds at a time, if at all. An hour later he finally pulled over in a small village where there was a mechanic. It’s now past two in the morning. Other drivers are outside drinking their coffee, eating bread, and some playing checkers with one another. All by candle-light in small shacks as it was still raining. I didn’t care about the rain anymore and just laid down on a bench trying to get some sleep. I had time on my side as I was always the last one in the car, besides the driver.
A half-hour went by when the driver announced the muffler was fixed and we’re going. I got inside and went to sleep. Throughout the five hours of sleep I was getting only briefly did I get waken up a few times. Each time I saw the rain pouring down on the road, an order of magnitude more then when I was laying on the bench; the car driving over pot-hole over pot-hole ignoring all reasoning that there were sides to roads (cars going the other direction did the same). Mud was flying all over the car and into the windshield as the wipers tried to clean it off in time before the next splash from the potholes. Once I turned around and only saw one other person awake.
At seven in the morning we had our first stop since fixing the muffler. Everyone was too tired and too crowded to move, so to someone watching us get out of the car it might have looked like fourteen three-toes sloths moving around. We were told the Senegalese border was about an hour away. Without finding anything to eat we got back into the car. The next hour everyone was up and awake waiting for the border check to appear.
When we entered the border area everyone was told to get out of the car. The guards then checked the drivers ID and waved him through. The next checked the passengers IDs with each one only given a second or two glance at their Senegalese, Guinean, or Gambian ID. Us three remained until last. Before he even asked for our ID the guard waved us inside. Sarah exchanged greetings with the man behind the desk, all in French, while he asked for all of our passports. He took each one in turn, made sure we had the proper Guinean visa (finally someone checked we had that $40 visa on us!) wrote all our information in a book and gave them back to us. During this process our driver came back seeing how we were doing. Everyone was waiting for us on the other side of the border. Finally our passports were stamped and we were let through. The driver walked with us to the car. “Almost home,” I thought, “just one more border.”
At eleven in the morning our car reached the end of the road and was at a cross-road. The driver started to turn to his left, but then pulled over and told us three to get out. What? Out came the French and the Fula. That corner was the closest he was going to The Gambia, with the border about a half-hour down the road to the right. We needed to get another car to get there. After nineteen hours in the car we got out for good. Nineteen hours in one car. Now, people in the US do road-trips all the time; some of them going twenty-four hours plus – and you are driving. The time is more, that is true. However, there’s some pros and cons to take into consideration.
In the US you have your own seat, in Africa you’re sharing it with three other people. In the US, the roads are smooth and go on forever, in Africa they are full of pot-holes the size of Montana and the roads remind you of the outline to French Curves used in drafting. In the US, there is a dotted line in the middle of the road to distinguish your side from the on-coming traffic side, in Africa you’re playing chicken with every passing car (see note above about potholes the size of Montana). In the US you have an air-conditioned car, or worse you have to roll down the windows; in Africa there is no such thing as an air conditioned car for public transportation and if you roll down your windows you’re going to have to take a shower afterwards your so filthy. In the US there’s McDonalds or rest areas within five miles of anywhere you are currently, in Africa you’d be lucky for a cockroach-infested pit-latrine.
I would rather be the driver in the US for a twenty-four-hour road trip then a passenger in Africa for nineteen hours. However, having said that, and having done both options, I now have a new found appreciation for the US road system. No more complaining of Michigan road construction or detours because of it. At least they’re fixing the roads!
Here we were standing on the crossroads in the rain. I flagged down a passing motorist and asked if he was going to Velingara. This was the same town we road into two weeks ago coming right out of Basse. He said he was and told us to hop in. This wasn’t a taxi but as you learn so often here is that you don’t pass up a chance for a ride. He drove us the half-hour to Velingara, even stopping a few times to make sure he was headed in the right direction for the car park we need. Upon arrival he refused any amount of payment, even when we offered more than what a taxi would charge for the same trip. We thanked him for the ride and went to buy our tickets back to Basse.
The road from Velingara to Basse is about an hour’s length in time. When the car park manager tried charging Sarah 100 CFA (~18 cents) more for her bag she was about to just walk the way home. She couldn’t understand why they didn’t charge Lisa or I for our luggage, and we figured it was just a joke that went a bit too far. Nevertheless, we all made it in the car without anyone being overpaid. At the Gambian border all bags were ordered to be searched. I was the first one in line and put my bag on his desk. He immediately saw the Peace Corps luggage tag on my bag:
“You are Peace Corps?”
“Wow. [Wollof: yes]”
“All three of you are Peace Corps?”
“OK, you can go”
He hadn’t even unzipped my bag or anything. We were allowed back on the truck before anyone else and had to wait while all the other bags were searched.
In mid-afternoon we arrived back in the Basse Peace Corps Regional House. The trip, for me, being 99% completed. Throughout the whole two weeks I hadn’t shaved, and so when I walked in one of the volunteers that was there said “Mike, you look like an young idealist Michael Moore!” I took it as it was suppose to be, a compliment, but still shaved within the hour.
I stayed in Basse that night and the next before heading home to Fajara, that trip being another nine hour road-trip. Word travels fast in Peace Corps and the moment I walked into the office people were asking about my trip; even the employees at the Post Office asked when I went the next day to get the mail!
In all it was a great trip and I’m glad I did it, despite being spur-of-the-moment.